Category Archives: Gedolim

A signature story about Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt"l

The following story about Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l is from the hesped given at by Rabbi Aryeh Cohen at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.  Any mistakes in the transcription are my own.  The entire emotional and personal hesped is available at

I’ll never forget.  One day I walked in to speak to him in his house.  He was sitting at his table, where he often was, and he has a pile this high, probably five hundred pieces of paper.  And they were letters to thank those who came to the Mir Yeshiva dinner for coming and helping out, whatever tzedaka.  And he was sitting there signing every single one personally.  Every single one, “Nosson Tzvi Finkel”.  Every one personally.  And when I tell you that each one took anywhere between thirty seconds and a minute, it’s no exaggeration.  It was very hard for him with his Parkinson’s and his arms flying to just, it was the way he would write, so until he got his pen down, once he got his pen down he could start, so he would be able to slide and finish that particular line.  But, each line took a long time for him to start, sometimes ten, twenty, thirty seconds.  Never heard of computer images, of a stamp?  Your sending out a mass letter of five hundred letters, maybe more, that was one pile.  There might have been more piles.  But, the Rosh Yeshiva understood that the chizuk, the inspiration, that each individual gets to have a little bit of a signature of the Rosh Yeshiva, to feel that kesher to the Rosh Yeshiva.  I’ll tell you, if you talk to anyone who learned in the Mir, they will tell you what they loved most was that kesher to the Rosh Yeshiva.

Also, Dixie Yid transcribed Rav Weinberger’s Shabbos drasha this past week that also contained several beautiful stories about Rav Nosson Tzvi and also describes a brief meeting Rav Weinberger had with him…well worth reading.

HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt"l, Howard Schultz and the Holocaust

In memory of the the Rosh Yeshiva, a great-grandson of the Alter of Slabodka, I’m reposting a “famous” story involving HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel z”tl and Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks and a lesson from the Shoah.

The story below, from Am Echad Resources, was written by Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks). This article is excerpted from a speech he delivered, and is reprinted courtesy of Hermes Magazine, Fall 2001, a publication of Columbia Business School.

When I was in Israel, I went to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area within Jerusalem. Along with a group of businessmen I was with, I had the opportunity to have an audience with Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel, the head of a yeshiva there [Mir Yeshiva]. I had never heard of him and didn’t know anything about him. We went into his study and waited 10 to 15 minutes for him. Finally, the doors opened.
What we did not know was that Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and, naturally, our inclination was to look away. We didn’t want to embarrass him.
We were all looking away, and we heard this big bang on the table: “Gentlemen, look at me, and look at me right now.” Now his speech affliction was worse than his physical shaking. It was really hard to listen to him and watch him. He said, “I have only a few minutes for you because I know you’re all busy American businessmen.” You know, just a little dig there.
Then he asked, “Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?” He called on one guy, who didn’t know what to do — it was like being called on in the fifth grade without the answer. And the guy says something benign like, “We will never, ever forget?” And the rabbi completely dismisses him. I felt terrible for the guy until I realized the rabbi was getting ready to call on someone else. All of us were sort of under the table, looking away — you know, please, not me. He did not call me. I was sweating. He called on another guy, who had such a fantastic answer: “We will never, ever again be a victim or bystander.”
The rabbi said, “You guys just don’t get it. Okay, gentlemen, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit.
“As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar. They thought they were going to a work camp. We all know they were going to a death camp.
“After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.
“As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?'”
And Rabbi Finkel says, “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others.”
And with that, he stood up and said, “Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people.”

The Rav and the Rebbe

Published in Song of Teshuva,  a commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah by Rav Moshe Weinberger and adapted by Yaacov Dovid Shulman.

Rav Weinberger tells over the following story (pages 134-135):

When Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik went to a farbregen (a Chassidic gathering) on the occasion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s eightieth birthday, he was very impressed by the Rebbe’s brilliance and erudition.  But on the the way home, Rav Soloveitchik said that there was one thing with which he did not agreee.  When he offered the Rebbe a l’chaim (a toast), the Rebbe said, “Now the descendants of R. Chaim Volozhiner and the family of the Baal HaTanya have come together.”  Rav Soloveitch said that this was not true.  They had come together earlier, when Hitler had put the Chassid and the misnaged (the opponent of Chassidism) together in the same oven.  That was when we realized that there is no difference between one Jew and another.

It should not take someone who hates and persecutes the Jewish people to remind us that there is no difference between Jews on the level of the soul.  We must appreciate that the sould of every Jew is inseparable from the Congregation of Israel.”>Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Rav Frand on the how to disagree and the paradigm of unity

In Rav Frand’s Teshuva drasha for this year (recorded live in Los Angeles on the first night of Selichos and available for purchase here), he discussed the need for unity on Yom Kippur and gave over an amazing story about Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld 

and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kookwho both had very different ways of viewing both the state of Israel (at the time called Palestine), the Jews who lived there, and secular education.

Rav Frand said:

When Rav Kook and Rav Sonnenfeld went to the little communities, the little kubutzim up in the north, where they [the residents] ate chazair treif, they went together to bring people back to Yiddishkeit.  Baalei Machloches- they held each other were wrong, but they worked together.  They disagreed without being disagreeable and we have not learned to do that.  When we disagree, you’re invalid, not entitled to your opinion.  Their vehement machloches never devolved in animosity.


You know, Rav Kook and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld were once invited to a bris.  Rav Yosef Chaim was to be the mohel and Rav Kook was supposed to be the zandek and they got to the shul at the same time.  Rav Yosef Chaim insisted that Rav Kook go in first, because he was a cohen.  Rav Kook insisted that Rav Yosef Chaim should go in, because he was a bigger person.  And they stood at the door frozen, they wouldn’t go until Rav Kook noticed that it was a double door and the left portion of the door was locked.  He reached in beside and pulled down the thing and they opened both doors simultaneously and they went in together.  That’s the paradigm [to how we should behave].

The entire shiur, Teshuva 2011 – Conflict Resolution: Within Our Community and Within Ourselves, is available for purchase and downloading on the Yad Yechiel website.

Any inaccuracies in this transcription are mine.  This is posted in zechus of a refuah shelayma for Reuven ben Tova Chaya and Miriam Orit bas Devorah. 

Rav Weinberger’s commentary on Oros(t) HaTeshuva now in book form

Black hat tip to R Reuven Boshnack.

Perfect for Elul and Tishrei!  I have been a teleconferencing Rav Weinberger’s Oros Ha’Teshuva shiurim forever, it seems.  They were my Friday morning companion for the eight years I lived in Indianapolis and after that, too.  Thanks to Reb Yaakov Dovid Shulman, the commentary of Rav Weinberger has now become available in book form.  Oros Ha’Teshuva is not (for me) easy to learn just on it’s on.  Like most of what Rav Weinberger teaches, his ability to clarify ideas and bring them home to our level is a gift.  My copy is ordered already.

From the publisher’s website:

Includes the original Hebrew text of Oros HaTeshuvah, a new translation into English by Yaacov Dovid Shulman, and commentary from Rabbi moshe Weinberger.

“Teshuvah – repentance – does not come to embitter life but to sweeten it.”

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook wrote these inspiring words in Oros HaTeshuvah, a work in which he delivers the message that teshuvah is not a somber process of self-deprivation but a joyful journey back to Hashem and to the core of who we are.

When Oros HaTeshuvah was published in 1925, it was immediately accepted as a classic of Jewish thought and hailed for its brilliance of ideas, warmth of feeling, depth of psychological insight, holiness of spirit and mastery of Torah knowledge.

However, because of the difficulty of its language and the profusion of its exalted concepts, Oros HaTeshuvah has remained for many a sealed book.

Now Rav Moshe Weinberger, Mara D’Asra of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, has composed a commentary that reveals the treasures embedded within Oros HaTeshuvah. Based on an extensive knowledge of Jewish philosophical and inspirational literature, Rav Weinberger’s commentary is profound, moving and fresh, richly explicating Oros HaTeshuvah’s ideas in a clear and accessible but not superficial manner. His masterful expositions on a variety of topics (such as the difference between depression and a broken heart) are both lucid and invigorating.

This book will fulfill the hopes of those who are looking for a holy text written in a contemporary style that will inspire them to renew their spiritual passions, strengthen their religious commitments and energize their personal growth.

Place your order here or contact your local seforim store.

The most important word of a bracha


Soon after it’s publication, I received a copy of Artscroll’s biography, Rav Gifter, by Rabbi Yechiel Spero.  As a close friend pointed out to me, it’s an “easy read”.  This is true, because Rav Gifter zt’l was a gadol that those from America (like myself) could relate to.  Moving from Portsmouth, VA to Balitmore at the age of two, he attended public school until going to NY at age 13 to attend YU’s high school.  His life along with the interviews and accounts of Telz (both in Lithuania and Cleveland) are snapshots of both the destruction and rebirth of a great yeshiva.

I’m about half way through this sefer and I find myself thinking about the following prior to every bracha I make:

One student recalls Rav Gifter aksing them what seemed like a very simple question:  What is the most important word in the blessing of “shehalok nihyeh b’dvaro– through Whose word everything came to be?”

Each of the young men gave their suggestions.  One suggested that Name of Hashem; another thought that it might be Melech (King).  But Rav Gifter’s answer remained with this talmid some 65 years later.

“The word Atah [You] is the most important word.  It shows us that we have a personal relationship with the Al-mighty.”
(page 84)

The time of our freedom

Pesach is z’man cherusanu, the time of freedom.  Rav Hirsch explains that until the time of Hashem taking us out of Egypt, all cultures had slaves.  It was how the world worked back then.  B’nai Yisrael were the first “free people”.  The concept of freedom, prior to our Exodus was something that the world didn’t understand or couldn’t even comprehend. 

With this idea from Rav Hirsch in mind, I look upon the next week and especially the seder nights an opportunity to anchor myself to a freedom that is true.  The freedom to recall and bring to action the unique role of being both a child of Hashem and also a servant.

We are all tied down.  This can be both a positive and a negative.  Being tied down to the role of a spouse and a parent is a wonderful bracha.  Those responsibilities center us and become a lifeline to us.  Feeling tied down to one’s job or economic situation can have a terrible effect on a person.  True freedom is when we can decide what we want to put of strengths into.

We can look at someone who lives a carefree life as being the most “free” of all men.  However, making the choice not to play by any one’s rules and taking the “road less traveled” doesn’t always show true independence.  To rebel l’shem rebellion, just to say that you are your own person isn’t always an example of freedom (there are those that, mamesh, rebel against society or a culture, in the name of Heaven, but I’m not writing about this).

So I sit at my laptop, knowing that in twenty-four hours, I’ll be at my own seder with my wife, that I love and still have no clue how she puts up with me, my three children, that are each different and still all peas in the same pad, and my brother, who has traveled from NY to be with us, with family.  I hope that they will have nice memories of our sederim and I will try to explain that the real freedom is to choose how you want to live your life.  For me, based on my traditions, what I learned in yeshiva, from rabbis, and what I have read, it’s a freedom that boils down to what is my purpose and how can stay on track every moment of my lfe.

Rav Aharon Kotler and the Mafia

Emunah Magazine has a very intersting story about R Aharon Kotler.

This seemingly too-incredible-to-be-true story actually took place. It was during WW2 where twenty-four rabbis were being held in Italy and faced being returned to Nazi- occupied Europe and certain death. Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder and head of Lakewood Yeshiva and a leader of Ashkenazi non-chasidic Judaism in America, turned to the well-known Orthodox Jewish activist and subsequent author of Ethics From Sinai, Irving Bunim, and asked him who could intercede on behalf of these 24 rabbis. Irving Bunim suggested the Italian Mafia! Rabbi Kotler urged Mr. Bunim to contact them immediately.

To read the rest, click here.  This story, if nothing else shows the power of a bracha.

Black Hat tip to the AJOP newsletter.

Rav Avraham Shorr shiur about Tisha B’Av (link)

I am fairly stiff-necked.  What I mean is that I don’t like to change.  I like the idea of improvement and working on middos (thus my own gravitation towards Mussar), but this is mostly because I tend to resist change.

Last night I downloaded a shiur that, like it or not, is causing me to think about a number of things and might lead to change.  If you’ve ever seen or heard Rav Avraham Schorr, then you know that he tends to tell it like its, but with a level of clarity that few have in our generation, IMHO.

The shiur I downloaded regarding Tisha B’Av is available from, here.

Rav Mordechai Eliyahu and my brush with greatness

The former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael (know as the Rishon l’Tzion) Rav Mordechai Eliyahu was niftar on Monday, June 7th (yesterday).  I’m not Sephardic, but he was a true Talmud Chacham and an Adom Gadol.
I was zoche to have not only met him once, but daven with him (well, in the same shul) and even had a lunch on Sukkos with him.  In 1989/90 I spent my first year learning (if you could call it that) in E”Y.  A close friend of mine came in for Sukkos and we stayed in his apartment, which was several flights above the Rishon l’Tzion’s in Kiryat Moshe.

My friend, who is Sephardic, and his family were actually very close with Rav Eliyahu and we were invited to come downstairs to his sukkah for lunch (on what was my first day of Yom Tov).  Throughout the meal he welcomed guest after guest, it was non-stop.  He was friendly and truly “received everyone cheerfully”.  For me it was a fairly quite meail, since I wasn’t fluent in Hebrew.  Rav Eliyahu’s wife offered me a side-dish, I think it might have been some type of spicy carrots and I thought I would be super-slick and decided that I only wanted “a little”, so I proudly said:  Katan, b’vakasha.
She smiled, realizing that I REALLY didn’t know Hebrew and she attempted to explain to me that I should have used the word “ktzat” instead of “katan“.  I sort of got the drift of what she was teaching me, but more importantly, I wasn’t embarassed or made to feel like I knew nothing.

After lunch Rav Eliyahu had someone go into his living room and bring out a beautiful book with amazing photos of different shuls in E”Y. The Rishon L’Tzion then had me sit next to him and he spent about 20 minutes going through the book with me and telling me the locations of each shul.  I felt so honored that he would invite me into his sukkah, let alone spend his precious time with me.  Despite the language barrier between us, the sensitivity and creative way he used to engage me as stayed with me over the years.  My oldest child knows this story, not because his abba once had a meal with the “Chief Sephardic Rabbi”, but because it illustrates true Gadlus in how to interact with a person and make them feel special.  That, to me, is one of the traits of a true Adom Gadol.

(A summary of this post was originally left as a comment here)